By Jean Sébastien Maire
After an horrific month of December, finishing with 1 win, 1 loss and 4 draws, Marseille ended the year 5th, but not completely out of the run for the championship, only 4 points away from Lille which was the best team before the bye that coincided with the holiday season.
Marseille’s only luck was that Lille’s victorious streak was followed closely by most of the teams behind, like Rennes, Paris Saint Germain or Lyon, creating a very close race with 5 teams in 6 points, for the first time in years.
Opening the year playing away at Evian Thonon Gaillard, the leader in Ligue 2 (The equivalent of the English Championship), in the French Cup, Marseille had the chance to start off the year with what was seen as an easy game. Alas, Marseille lost 3 to 1 to a very combative and effective team that did not let any chance to them. Not only Marseille played without envy, showing a poor involvement by the players, but also the terrible weather conditions made the field look like it had been stomped by a thousand people, not helping with the way Marseille plays, with quick passes to the wingers coming from Lucho Gonzalez, its play master in the midfield.
This big disillusion came with the first game in the second part of the season, in a period in which players are coming back to competition full of expectations by the fans especially in the French Cup (Marseille having won the trophy 10 times, 1st in the rankings in France). Nothing could have been worse than beginning the year like that, with such a pitiful elimination by a lower ranked team.
Pressure was on for Marseille, hosting an historic rival, Bordeaux, for the 20th stage of the French Ligue 1. Statistics showed that in tha last 10 years, Marseille and Bordeaux had earned pretty even results when playing in the Stade Velodrome. A situation of must-win for the two teams (Marseille being 5th and Bordeaux 9th) put even more weight on both teams’ shoulders. After a close but interesting game, full of opportunities for one side or the other, Marseille came up victorious, with goals by André-Pierre Gignac who had not scored since October, and Brandão, often criticized in Marseille for his lack of goals, even though his implication in every game, fighting for every ball earned him the respect of most. Bordeaux scored late on a penalty kick that did not change anything at the final result.
A good victory for Marseille, although signs of defensive weaknesses and overall lack of control on the game tarnished the feeling that Marseille, although it did not play well for months, could assure itself a run for the championship.
Finally, yesterday’s game played away in Auxerre for the League Cup semifinal won by Marseille 2-0, again with goals by Gignac and Brandão finally gave signs to all the fans, and even to the hasher critics that Marseille could finally be what everyone expects the team to be: a strong contender for trophies and a victory at the end of the French Ligue 1. A well-managed game, an up-to-the-task defensive side, a creative midfield with Andre Ayew and Lucho Gonzalez eager to distribute precise passes made the difference against Auxerre, a team whose slump without a win is 11 games long now.
Next game in Monaco on Sunday will show if Marseille is definitely back on track or if it still lacks the possibility to keep the pace set by the leaders.